Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 17 August 2012

Once in No-Man's Land

Call of Cthulhu has visited the Great War before, most notably with the scenario, No-Man’s Land, as has Trail of Cthulhu
 with the recent Flying Coffins and the scenario, "Not So Quiet" from the anthology Out of Time. Yet neither has approached this period in as interactive a fashion as in Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. This is a computer RPG which uses Call of Cthulhu for its mechanics under license from Chaosium, Inc. and is available for several platforms, including Android, iOS, and Windows, so can be run on your computer, your smartphone, or your tablet. The latter though, is the game’s natural home. That said, The Wasted Land has taken a while to get to the Android platform and be debugged, which has delayed my getting to write this review.

Anyway, as much as Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land employs the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu, it is not a true RPG. Not in the sense of a pen and paper RPG such as Call of Cthulhu, nor in the sense of a computer RPG. Rather it is a skirmish combat game, one that is Action Point driven and turn-based, much in the same mode as the classic computer games, Laser Squad and X-Com. The game has the player control up to six characters, and on each turn, the player will expend each character’s Action Points to move that character and have him attack his opponents – with an option for taking time to aim at his opponents – as well as to heal and even psychoanalyse his allies!

The setting is the Western Front in 1915. As related in his diaries, a British squad under Captain Hill must defend against a German attack that grows stranger and stranger. Not just ordinary German soldiers, but cult fanatics and zombies too! Fortunately, Professor Brightmeer, a Miskatonic University scholar on attachment to British Military Intelligence is on hand to inform Captain Hill and his men that a German occultist has turned to more outré means to bring about victory for the Kaiser! So begins the desperate search for the means to stop this dastardly villain, which will take the squad out of the trenches and into No-Man’s Land, before going underground over the course of eleven missions. Along the way they will avoid things as ordinary as poison gas and barbed wire, and things as otherworldly as spiders from Leng and giant walking tentacle plants.

Most of the eleven missions involve holding off the Hun, either to defend a location or to get to a location. This has the characters dodging from cover to cover, searching for strongpoints where they can heal, researching documents, and more. For the most part, the missions are very linear, often with one safe path through the mission zone. Even when the characters have to enter patches of poison gas, they can be equipped with gas masks.

In between missions, characters are taken through two upgrade steps. The first sees their stats and skills improved. It is here that the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu are at their most obvious, though in a slimmed down fashion that focuses on those numbers necessary for combat. Skills, rated on a percentile skill, are arms and equipment, along with the First Aid Skill to heal the sick and the Psychoanalysis Skill to heal the mentally disturbed. Stats are rated on a 3 to 18 scale, and are improved to one of two ends. The first is to increase the number of Action Points that a character has in combat, whilst the second is to increase a character’s Sanity and thus his ability to withstand mental shocks.

A Sample Character: Captain Hill
The second upgrade step deals with equipment. Here a character can upgrade from his trusty Lee-Enfield rifle to a Hotchkiss M1914 heavy machine gun or a Winchester Model 1912 pump-action shotgun. There is a small armoury of weapons available, both guns and melee weapons, as well as gasmasks, armour, and even homing pigeons which will deliver requests for artillery support. Medical kits are also available as are books derived from the works of Freud that will help restore a character’s Sanity, whilst it is possible in later missions for characters to learn spells, although casting these greatly deplete the Sanity of the caster.

The mechanics of Call of Cthulhu also show within a mission. First in the use of the skills, though you see no percentile dice being rolled, and second, in the Sanity mechanic. Sanity is lost when attacking and being attacked by forces of the Mythos, and when too much is lost, a character can be paralysed with fear, sent catatonic, or even sent manic! The latter is incredibly taxing on the body, the sufferer usually ending up dead, but whilst manic, a character becomes a force of nature, able to charge the enemy and deal out damage aplenty.

The redoubtable Sid Brown alerts Captain Hill as to the imminent danger!
Whilst game play is simple, it is actually quite challenging in places, the final mission overly so, and it might take a restart or two to really get into the game. It does not help that game play is hampered by slightly clunky controls that sometimes will have you stabbing a stubby finger at the screen of your tablet in frustration. Another often annoying factor is that the missions tend to be very linear in nature – “Go there!”, “Do that!”, “Now exit over there!” – such that there is not a great deal of variety in terms of play. This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot the spells do not become available until last quarter of the game, limiting the option of creating variations upon the gun toting characters that dominate game play.

Inspired by the events of Lovecraft’s Herbert West: Reanimator, the game’s treatment of the Mythos is more pulp than purist as it mixes a number of Mythos entities together and its game play is all combat. Where The Wasted Land shines is in its detail and its atmosphere. Although a little anachronistic in places (easily portable machine guns in 1915?), all of the characters are well defined, and the battlefields feel suitably ‘gone to hell,’ literally a wasted land. The animation is good too – there is something quite unnerving to see a Dark Young lumbering towards your squad as they attempt to blast it to bits before their sanity is blown too. Overall, Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is an engaging electronic treatment of Lovecraftian horror worthy of your time and a sequel.

By the way, perhaps Red Wasp Design and Modiphius Press should get together. A World War II Lovecraftian horror game for your tablet would make a great sequel.